Agency and Accountability

Elaine Cannon


A good man had been given the assignment in his ward of arranging the Boy Scout banquet. He had worked hard, made his choices, and carried them through. The tables were set, the food was in the pot, and the hour was drawing nigh.

His wife came over early to check things out. Everything seemed in order, but it looked mighty colorless to her trained eye. She turned to him and said, “Okay, Honey, but what are you going to use for the centerpieces?”

Surprised, he looked at the stark setting and considered the matter gravely for a moment. Then, in the full agency of his manhood, he replied, “Butter—squares of butter!”

Now that is what you might call freedom of choice—agency. And that’s what we’re going to talk about for a few minutes, agency and accountability. I must add that should we happen to choose butter for the centerpiece, we can’t expect compliments on the decor. We have our free agency, but we also have to accept the consequences of our choices. It isn’t so serious in centerpieces, but in matters of life, and of life after death, it is critical.

Agency is an eternal principle and is implicit in the test of life. We must constantly choose between opposites: good and evil. Satan sought to destroy the free agency of man, and here on earth he’s still working to entangle man in sin. (See Moses 4:3–4.)

To use our agency wisely we need information to act upon. We need a knowledge of the laws of life, with their accompanying blessings and protective punishments. When we know the gospel, the elements of the “thou shalts” and the “thou shalt nots,” we’ll make better choices.

The scriptures remind us, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32.) Our job is to search for the full truth and apply it in our lives. Though we are free to act, we are not free to decide what is right or wrong. That was determined eons ago. We can scoff at sacred things, rationalize our behavior, spout our own ideas, agree or disagree, but it doesn’t change anything. We cannot alter God’s laws, his truth. We can choose to use truth wisely and reach our goal, or we can refuse to learn truth, to live it, and then pay the inevitable penalty.

Accountability is the natural product of agency and is the basis of the plan of life. We are responsible for our own actions and accountable to God for what we choose to do with our lives. Life is God’s gift to us, and what we do with it is our gift to him.

In Galatians we read, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Gal. 6:7.) Sisters, translated into simple idiom that means that if you pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other. When you pick a path, you choose the place it leads to.

I well remember a striking scene that gave me a dramatic perspective of agency and accountability. I was in a village hotel in Taiwan, several floors up, looking out the window at great numbers of the beautiful children of Taiwan on their way to school. From my vantage point I could see the school some distance away. The children knew the school was there, though they couldn’t see it yet, and, of course, they were unaware of my presence. They were charming in the official school uniform—short navy skirt or pant; clean, white starched shirt; and, on this rainy day, a canary-yellow slicker. Now, some of the children carelessly dragged their slickers behind them; a few let them fly open; others wore them tightly buttoned, like the whole armor of God.

The path they were taking through the rice paddy was well trampled, but there were big mud puddles, exciting places to hide between tall rushes, temptations behind a small shop across the way.

The children came around the corner of the hotel—wave after wave of these little people of Heavenly Father’s family—and according to their agency, they dawdled along, were detoured by the slightest distraction, or else pressed toward the mark—the school way up ahead. It was up to them now; parents weren’t around.

I was fascinated watching the children deal with their environment. Some deliberately plowed right through the deep mud puddles time and again and came forth filthy. Others automatically marched around the puddle, almost oblivious to it. Many absolutely couldn’t resist the temptation to gingerly touch a toe in the mire. One little girl, afterwards, stooped over and tried to wipe the mud from her shoe, then from her hand; then she brushed the spot on her clothes where she had wiped her hand. Mud is tough to erase.

Interesting, isn’t it? Life from a window. Agency and accountability. They made their choices, and so do we.

We are like children walking a path in the rain. We can walk in or around the mud of life as we desire, but with our choices come the consequences. And we are rapidly becoming what we are choosing to be for all eternity.

Spiritual maturity is understanding that we cannot blame anybody else for our actions. Some factors may make it harder for us to perform according to God’s plan for us, but being accountable for how we use our agency means being answerable for our own behavior.

It is one of the things that I admire most about mother Eve—her absolute strength in personal accountability. When she was called on the proverbial carpet by God, she explained that Lucifer had tempted her with the fruit. But then she admitted, “And I did eat.” (Moses 4:19.)

By strict obedience Jesus won. He did not succumb to Satan’s temptings. And if we do what the Lord says, we have no need to fear the consequences. “Thy will, not mine, O Lord” can be comforting in times of testing or decision. God loves us. He loves you! His will for you when obeyed means your ultimate joy.

But I worry, Sisters. I sometimes wonder if we know God’s will for us, if we know what is hurtful or sinful and why, if we have the faintest notion, on the other hand, of the glories he has in store for our reward, here as well as hereafter, if we are obedient. I wonder if mothers have really taught daughters about truth, agency, and accountability. Are daughters sharing with mothers their own learnings? Individuals and families are strengthened as we help each other grow in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The 1984 scriptural theme approved by the General Authorities for young women to recite in class each week is “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Ne. 3:7; italics added.) We can do what we’re supposed to do.

We are not alone. We can feel the sustaining power of the Savior. He will help us as we strive to make right choices all along the path.

Now, Sisters, let’s love him enough to be obedient. This is the season for strength. This is a time for us to choose to stand as a people who have made covenants through baptism and in the temple to be valiant and to be lifters of those not as blessed as we are.

Recently I was doing some prayerful thinking about this heavy responsibility I have right now—young women need so much guidance, protection, and love. On this occasion I felt inadequate, and as I measured my weaknesses, against all the wickedly clever ones in the world, I admit that I sagged for a time. But after praying earnestly, I looked deep inside to the core of me, where the Spirit can touch us, and I knew then that I wouldn’t give up. Whatever I am, whatever I need to overcome, I will be one upon whom the Lord can count. We can all use our agency this way—to be one upon whom the Lord can count.

Let’s do it! In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.